It is moments like these that I wish my son had never been brought into this world. Perhaps not nonexistent, but born during a simpler time, when men lived indebted to everyone around them but still somehow had enough money to put food on the table and buy their children toys.
“Mama,” he asks me softly, the sound of sleep evident in his tiny voice. “Why have you stopped?”
“I’m sorry, Davie. I got lost in my thoughts again. Where was I?” He looks up at me with his big, brown eyes, so dark that the pupils are hidden, as if eclipsed. He has his father’s eyes.
“You were telling me about the pretty girl with the yellow hair, whose daddy has been away.”
“Oh, yes. Lucy.”
Every night I read him these stories, finishing just as his father gets home from a long day of work to put him to bed. Looking at him, with his tiny head resting on my breast, I can’t help but see him as a remnant of purity in these dark and trying days.
In the mornings, before I wake David to help him get ready for school, my husband and I have breakfast together. He boils the water for our instant coffee, while I get a tablespoon of butter to spread on our toast, and we sit together at the table long before the sun comes out. I ask him about work and he asks about David, and we do not speak of unpleasant things. We will not see each other again until the sun has come and gone, and by then we are both too tired from working and living to say much of anything. When the time comes, the sun finally peeks in through the windows, discovering our secret meetings and chasing us away.
I am making us a small dinner, distracted as I try to calculate how to make the food last for the rest of the week, until we are given more. I continue on, cutting and cooking, for several minutes until I realize that it has been silent. Turning around, I look down at my son, whose brow is furrowed in thought as he picks at the slice of bread that I gave him to hold him over before dinner.
“Are you feeling okay, sweetie?” I ask worriedly.
“Yeah.” He replies shortly.
Setting my knife down, I lower the heat on the stove and grab the bread from his hands, dusting the crumbs off of them. He is still quiet and serious, so I kneel down and grab his hands, staring at them intently to get his attention.
“Mom?” He asks confused.
“I don’t know if I’ve gotten all of the crumbs off. Nobody likes having a little boy running around with sticks hands. Hm.” I take his hands and pull them towards my mouth, playfully pretending to nibble on his small fingers. He lets out a startled yelp, before giggling. It is the most beautiful sound that I have heard all day. I think that if the rich men that greedily thrive during this great depression were able to hear this sound, their hearts of stone would soften. I scoop him up, and deposit him on the worn out sofa in the center of the room. “What’s got you all mopey, grumpy gills?” I ask him teasingly.
He looks at me and I know that he is debating whether or not to tell me what is on his mind. He is almost nine years old now and is already much too conscious concerning the emotions of adults. “I really want to know.” I tell him more seriously.
He takes a loud breath and begins. “Today at school, Timothy told me that we were all poor, and that other people are rich and mean and won’t help us. Like the people from the book we are reading.”
“A Tale of Two Cities?”
He nods, his light brown hair bouncing into his eyes as he does. I make a mental note to cut it soon, waiting for him to continue.
“He said that there used to be rich people, and poor people, and people in the middle. And that one day, everything collapsed so that everyone was poor except for the really, really rich people. He said that the rich people tried to help, but then stopped because they were mean and hurt the poor people and then he said that is was their own fault because the poor people were being dumb. Are we dumb?”
I look at him, trying to keep up as he gets all of this out, and feel a pang. It is the same pang that I feel when I see how tall he is getting or how much he is beginning to understand the world around him. He looks up at me expectantly, and I swallow thickly, knowing that I have to make a decision. I think of my husband, and what he would say, and know that he would tell me to tell the truth, because my husband is an honest man who tries to lead his family to accept the currents of these times and not fight against them or pretend that they aren’t there. I think of David, my little boy, and know that he will not be tainted by this information as I have irrationally feared he might be, for he is much too pure to be changed, even by the poison of evil men.
“We are not dumb. You, in fact, are a very bright little boy.” He smiles proudly, waiting for me to continue. “Timothy was right about certain things.” I pause. “A long time ago…before you were born, when I was myself just a child, our country was in a very bad place. We owed everybody money, as a country and as people. During this time, there were rich people, poor people, and people who were somewhere in the middle. As several years passed by, the people in the middle became more and more poor. Eventually everything collapsed and there were only the rich and the poor.”
I take a breath, looking at David to see if he is following. He nods at me and waits. I do not want to continue but do.
“People began living as we do. Mom’s and dad’s working all day to make enough money to pay for places to live and going to the government buildings once a week to get food. Eventually it seemed that there were more people living in the streets or in overcrowded shelters than in houses.”
“Like homeless people, mommy?”
“Yes. Like homeless people. Before long, people started getting sick. Not with colds, but with something much worse. Doctor’s couldn’t figure out how to treat the disease, and people began to die.”
“Were there rats in the streets covered in blood?”
I smile. “No David. This wasn’t anything like The Plague.”
“Oh. What was it like then?”
“Well…the disease was almost like some sort of off switch. Like when you turn off the tv on Saturday mornings. One second it is on and the person is walking and talking, and the next it is like their bodies just began to shut down. The organs stopped doing what they were supposed to and the person just turned off, almost without warning.”
“Can we still get it?” He asks, eyes full of fear.
“No, honey. Doctors found a way to fix it.” I do not tell him that people are still dying from it in certain parts of the country. He is still too young to live in fear.
“Good,” he says relieved. “Then what happened?”
“After a while, the doctors figured out that if they could give the sick people new organs, some of them were able to live long enough to work through the time that it took for the disease to run its course and be okay.”
“Like transplants. Do you remember that show that movie that you saw in school where the girl got a new kidney?” He nods. “Like that.”
“Where did they all come from, mommy?”
I wince. “Some people gave them because they felt bad and wanted to help. Some gave them after they were old and passed away. But…but eventually as several years went by, there weren’t enough donors…that is people to give their organs. Those who had a lot of money began to pay everybody else to donate. People were so poor and needed the money so much that they tried to donate too much. They cared more about feeding their families than about themselves.”
“Like you and daddy with working?” My son asks me, his eyes sad. I bite the inside of my lip, hard, to quell the emotions that rise up within me.
“No, kiddo. Not like mommy and daddy. Mommy and daddy do love you more than anything in the universe, but we are doing okay.”
He smiles hesitantly and nods, crawling over my knees and into my lap. Resting his head on my shoulder, he asks…”and then what happened?”
“People kept giving too much and getting hurt, until one day a group got together and said that enough was enough. They went before congress, who at this time were running around like chickens with their heads cut off…” David laughs and I wait for him to quiet down. “like chickens…” I begin again purposely. He laughs and I look at him with mock consternation.
“Are you going to let me finish?”
“Yes…yes!” He replies out of breath, attempting to look serious and stop laughing. I smile at him and wait until I’m sure he will make it.
“ A group got together before congress and said that this was wrong and against everything that our country stood for. They said that we should not have to go to such extreme measures to feed our children. Congress heard them and made it illegal for people to donate an organ without passing a series of examinations. Even then, they were only allowed to donate once throughout an entire lifetime.”
“I think that was the right thing to do, right mommy?” David asks.
“Right, smarty pants.”
He shifts in my lap, and his stomach growls loudly, causing him to giggle.
“Someone’s hungry,” I say, lifting him up and setting him down in a chair. “Finish your bread and work on homework. Dinner is almost done.”
I walk to the stove and watch as he dumps the contents of his backpack onto the table. I know that he is still processing the story that I’ve told of our country’s dark past, and that it will take years for him to grasp what he has heard. I also know that he is much too bright and knowing, and that I will have to answer his questions for weeks to come. I pour him some milk to curb his appetite and carry it over, quietly setting it down next to him as he thanks me distractedly. Watching as he stacks a pile of his favorite books at the table’s edge, I grab them, putting them into the makeshift bookcase that my husband made. Leafing through a copy of David Copperfield, I wonder when the little Artful Dodger stole it from my collection.
As I look from the book to my own little, Daisy, I can’t help but feel lighter. I know that I have made the right decision.
When night comes, we reach the end of our story, and I am reading: ““I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
I close the book and David mumbles something, snuggling closely to me.
“ I said that I see it too, mommy.” He whispers before falling asleep.
I look down at my son and smile. “Me too.”